and Grief are occupational hazards for vets but
for some it becomes so hard to handle that they
leave the profession….
years ago veterinarian Sally Walshaw euthanased
the family cat because he had mesothelioma of
the chest wall. It’s an experience she will
“A few days later our young son said to me in
an accusing tone, ‘Kitty died. You are a
vet and Kitty died’,” Dr Walshaw says.
Still grieving herself, Dr Walshaw was surprised
at his words. “I reminded him that we are
veterinarians not God,” she says.
Intellectually, at least, most veterinarians
would agree with that sentiment. Emotionally,
it’s a different story. Veterinarians may
take on the responsibility for loss, regardless
of wether that loss was avoidable.
For many Veterinarians, the truth is that grief
over the death of an animal can be compounded by
doubt in one’s ability and feelings of
helplessness in the face of death.
Frank Gaschk, a veterinarian and cartoonist,
describes how he felt when he put his own cat to
“The god-like state of being a
lethobarb-wielding veterinarian – dissolved in
tears (I was) unable to hold back. I felt
like I should change professions because the
sadness of euthanasia can be so depressing and
having to give up so much energy to remain
positive and strong, soothing the ones left
behind,” he says.
Veterinary practice has been described as an
emotional coalface where veterinarians and
nursing staff often work under pressure for
clients who can be highly emotional. For
example, Euthanasia is an event that is highly
emotionally charged, yet a veterinarian may be
called to perform euthanasia several times a
day, in between tending to other patients,
performing surgery and coping with emergencies.
When the importance of the human-animal bond
became increasingly acknowledged by the
veterinary profession in the 1980’s, Dr Walshaw
became increasingly interested in the emotions
of those who work with animals. She was
particularly interested in human emotions about
animal death in the laboratory, but expanded her
interests when she realised a need for more
information about grief in general veterinary
“After giving a program about animal death and
human emotion to shelter personnel, one of the
employees said to me, ‘At least you lab animals
die for a purpose. We have to kill very nice
dogs and cats just because of human carelessness
in our throw-away society’,” Dr. Walshaw says.
She has produced several publications on the
subject of grief, and is invited to speak at
“Animal shelter employees and veterinarians must
deal with especially heart-wrenching situations”
Because they deal with patients that have a life
span much shorter than their own, grief will
always be an occupational hazard for
veterinarians. But it doesn’t stop at the
loss of their own pets, or even the loss of
Dr. Walshaw argues that veterinarians need to
acknowledge the strong emotions they feel when
faced with a distraught client.
“When I graduated from vet school in 1975 we
were told that it would be unprofessional to
show emotions in front of the owner of an
animal. I found that it was impossible to be
emotionless when standing with an elderly man
weeping over his dying dog,” she says.
Yet many veterinarians repress their feelings
because of the belief that it would be
unprofessional to show emotion, or to be
perceived by the client or other staff as
Constant exposure in situations that may lead to
grief, coupled with a high work load, have been
implicated in the fact that veterinarians have a
higher proportional mortality rate due to
suicide than many other professions.
“Medical doctors and nurses who work in oncology
and other terminal illnesses face the same
situation. It is important for veterinarians
to understand the grief process, so they can
help themselves and their employees as they deal
with grief,” Dr Walshaw says.
Part of that understanding is realising that
grief is not something you mechanically ‘get
over’. The loss of patients, the loss of our
own pets and the feelings of staff and clients
may all necessitate some kind of grieving
process, although the nature of this varies.
“If you have experienced a significant loss, you
are changed forever. Hopefully, you will
learn from grief and you will be strengthened in
empathy, openness, wisdom, joy, commitment and
energy,” Dr. Walshaw says.
Of course, it doesn’t usually happen this
way. More often than not, the experience of
loss can leave veterinarians feeling like
they’ve been suddenly shot out of a cannon.
Dr. Walshaw agrees wholeheartedly.
The key is to give yourself room to feel like
that. It might sound self indulgent but if
you don’t grieve, things can get a whole lot
Delayed feelings of grief do not automatically
dissipate, and the desire to ‘get on with it’
can lead to complicated grief, which may
manifest itself in a variety of ways including
burn out and depression.
Veterinarians who feel they are at fault when an
animal dies may respond by working harder and
longer. This can rapidly lead to physical and
emotional exhaustion and burnout.
“You have top be kind to yourself. That
includes taking time to reflect, rest, relax,
walk and cry if want to. If you feel sad, it
means you have a good, kind heart and that is
the most important attribute for your family,
friends, clients and the animals,” Dr Walshaw
says. She warns against treating time out as
a luxury, arguing that if veterinarians don’t
address personal stress, they can easily fall
into compassion fatigue.
a pet is a distressing experience at the best of
times, but for the veterinarian it can be a
situation that is played out on a daily basis.
According to Tracy Zaparanick, a clinical social
worker at the University of Tennessee in the US,
veterinarians, veterinary nurses and shelter
staff can suffer from a syndrome known as
Ms Zaparanick is currently compiling a series of
studies to determine the incidence of compassion
fatigue in US veterinarians.
“Compassion fatigue results from the combined
effects of primary traumatic stress, secondary
traumatic stress and burnout,” she says.
Primary traumatic stress arises from an actual
or perceived actual threat to oneself, while
secondary traumatic stress arises from
witnessing such a threat, or experiencing it
second hand (for example by hearing about it).
“A common theme among animal car providers is
that they will imagine what caused the injuries
of the animal that sits in front of them. If
the alarming vision is accompanied by fear,
hopelessness or horror, they have experienced
secondary traumatic stress,” Ms Zaparanick says.
Burnout occurs when demands or perceived demands
on an individual outweigh perceived resources –
“when people arrive at work needing to be
refuelled only to find work demanding more
Common symptoms of compassion fatigue include
disturbances in sleep, decline in work
performance, experiencing sudden, uninvited
thoughts, diminished desire for intimacy, loss
of confidence and self motivation or substance
The ultimate consequence is that a person
suffering from compassion fatigue may opt out of
veterinary practice altogether.
Ms Zaparanick says it is common for
veterinarians to drop out of private practice
and choose a career that requires as little
interaction with the public as possible.
These, she says, are wounded caregivers.
“I was talking to a veterinarian who described
to me her last few weeks at work. Several of
her long-term patients had died and as she tried
to console the owners and her staff, she was
really struggling with maintaining herself,” she
Unfortunately, the profession lost a very
competent, very caring veterinarian.
“Many consider these symptoms pathological,
indicating something inherently wrong with the
person. I have found that they are usually an
alert system,” she says.
The solution, she argues, is self care. She
counsels veterinarians not to feel guilty or
underestimate the importance of taking time out.
“A great analogy is a parallel drawn from the
necessity to care for oneself and the emergency
instructions on aeroplanes. Whose faces are
we directed to place the first air mask on?
Our own. Why? So we are better able to
assist others,” she says.
It sounds simple but many veterinarians place
great expectations on themselves and often allow
work and home life to become inseparable.
Ms Zaparanick argues that it is crucial to
prioritise relationships with others, because it
is through others that “we find hope, meaning
and relief from our work”.
A healthy social life is extremely important, as
is regular talking to trusted colleagues or
friends about traumatic workplace experiences.
While some veterinarians argue that they need a
level of emotional involvement in order to do
their job properly, it is important to recognise
that being fully present to others requires a
professional to be in an energised state.
In order to maintain that energised state, we
need to enjoy time with our loved ones, and time
The benefits of physical activity cannot be
under-stated. Many practitioners who work
full-time do not eat or exercise properly, often
skipping meals during rushed breaks or relying
on junk food to get them through the day.
These factors can exacerbate burnout and
Some kind of aerobic activity is essential,” Ms
Veterinarians need to recognise that colleagues
are also vulnerable to the effects of compassion
fatigue, and may have difficulty coping.
“Managing traumatic experiences, real or
perceived, is not that simple. Those
threatening uninvited thoughts and feelings
hijack the mind and play havoc on the body’s
functioning. Understanding how trauma
affects our co-workers can provide us with some
choices about how we might support our wounded
colleagues.” She says.
A confidential, 24 hour telephone service is
available to veterinarians and veterinary
students through Doctors Health and Advisory
Service, phone (02) 9437 6552. Detailed
information is available at
Walshaw SO. Consoling bereaved clients.
Compendium on Continuing Education for the
Animal Health Technician 1981; 2(6):
Walshaw SO. Animal death and human emotion in
the laboratory. Lab Animal 1994;
This article is reproduced with the kind
permission of the Veterinarian Magazine as is
taken from their October 2003 issue.
Copyright remains with them and cannot be
reproduced without written consent. We also
offer our thanks to the author.
information can be found at